As we packed our gear to go banding last night I noticed the thick leather bat gloves sitting on the shelf. We had not brought them with on any of our other excursions so far in Egypt, but something made me ask Liz if we should bring them along tonight. Fate perhaps? Maybe it was some good spirit looking out for us in the land of the Nile? Liz said we probably did not need them, but I decided to throw them in my backpack anyway. Last night we returned to the village of Rekabia, where we walked through the market, to catch the swallows at the rice mill and duck house. We went first to the mill where we had spotted 3-4 nests the day before. It was closed up and dark and filled, we hoped, with peacefully sleeping barn swallows. Our guide, the friendly fish farmer who we finally determined is named Badran met us. He told us that we could not catch the birds in the rice mill at night. This was a surprise as we had talked to him the day before and everything seemed arranged. He told us no, we could not catch the swallows at night because there was a ghost that lived in the mill and that it was too dangerous. The owner himself never goes in after sunset. I suggested that perhaps this was maybe a friendly ghost, to which I received some very skeptical looks. Basma confirmed that she felt a cold ominous feeling from the place. We planned to try and catch there some morning when the sun was out and the ghost was less active.
The man who owned the duck shed refused to give permission for us to catch his birds. Not because of supernatural forces, but for fear of disturbing his young fowl. We understood. Badran said he could lead us to another place and after walking through some narrow streets we realized that he had brought us back to the place of the bucket birds. We explained that we had already caught them and needed new swallows. It was not looking like it was going to be a very successful night. He eventually lead us to a small chicken coop with about 20 baby chicks blocked off in the corner and a nest and a pair of barn swallows in the center of the ceiling. The only entrance for the swallows into the coop was a tiny hold the size of a baseball in the wall. They must have been very determined. As we were setting up the nets the power went out and the whole village went dark. Maybe it was the ghost? Luckily we had our headlamps.
After catching the chicken coop swallows Badran lead us to what looked like a large storage shed with high ceilings. First glance up with our headlamps revealed many barn swallows roosting on wires hanging right above the door. Further inside we found several nests with birds roosting on them- barn swallow jackpot! Maybe this would be a successful night after all. What followed was a new level of chaos. I will describe it in no particular order, as that is how it was experienced. There were somehow about 6 men who appeared in the shed to help us. People were holding nets for us and, eventually, chasing barn swallows around the ceiling with nets. Understand that these nets are on poles and are several meters long. Liz and I, who try very hard to be polite were shouting orders and can only be described as very bossy (leadership skills be dammed). There were bright flashlight shining this way and that. At one point I was climbing on huge piles of grain sacks gabbing barn swallows. Some man was trying to get in the door where we had a net set up and we were just holding it closed and ignoring him. Someone else caught a barn swallow in their hands that almost hit Liz in the face. Things were falling, people were waving boards in the air, everyone was shouting and people’s cell phones were ringing. This was so very different from the quiet, calculated night banding that Joey and I have always done.
But the real problem was the bats. This place was filled with bats. We set our nests to catch the barn swallows roosting near the door and we flushed them. Lots of them were flying and when we shined our light on our nets, a horrified Liz exclaimed- Holy Shit they are all bats! This was not entirely true, 6 of them were barn swallows, and 8 of them were bats. Don’t get me wrong, bats are cool, I love bats, but they are terrifying to get out of mist nets. They squeak and squirm and wiggle and bite everything they can with their sharp white teeth trying to chew their way out of the mist nets. They also carry all sorts of unpleasant diseases like Rabies and Ebola to name a few. Luckily we had the bat gloves, and our rabies vaccines. We then had to get them out of the nets, release them out the door (probably in the face of the man who wanted to get in) and keep everyone else from touching them.
Despite ghosts and bats we managed to catch 13 birds last night. We banded them in the floor of the village grocery store. As if there were not enough chaos that night, half way through banding I let a bird out of hand, something I have not done for years. It was a little embarrassing, maybe I can blame the bats and ghosts for shaky hands. After an interesting 10 min of putting up nets in the little store and waving brooms around and having Mamdouh climb up on some shelves we managed to catch him again. The amazingly helpful villagers brought us tea and kunafa, a cheese pastry that is soaked in sweet syrup and flavored with coconut that is traditionally served at Ramdan. We got back to our hotel at 12:30am but were too wired to sleep for at least an hour.